India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his farewell news conference in New Delhi on January 3 (Pic: pmindia.nic.in)
I get it that he is a prime minister and not a prime jester but one still expects some signs of overt passion in Manmohan Singh. He is like a stoic who is very tired and is trying hard not to show it.
His farewell news conference, only his third in ten years, was no different from his first one in terms of its emotional quotient. It registered no highs or lows on the mood meter even though he said something that was severely damning of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial ambitions.
"Without discussing the merits of Narendra Modi, I sincerely believe that it will be disastrous for the country to have Modi as the PM," he told the media in New Delhi. "India does not want such a prime minister."
He even sharply mocked the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial nominee’s credentials by saying, "If by strong prime minister you mean you preside over the massacre of innocents on the streets of Ahmedabad, that is not the kind of strength I will like to have."
This is as dismissive as Dr. Singh, or for that matter anyone in his position, can get. The needle on the mood meter should have gone wild at these comments given how stinging they were. And yet no spike was registered. Watching and listening to Dr. Singh invariably leaves one strangely fatigued. I unconsciously slouch when I watch him.
As the news value of a prime ministerial presser goes, this had enough in it. Although it was widely expected, his decision not to remain in the reckoning for prime minister in the parliamentary election this year for his Congress Party is newsworthy. His comprehensive rejection and indictment of Narendra Modi is equally newsworthy. So was his cynical explanation about the many corruption scandals that have plagued his government. He said that since his coalition was re-elected despite all the charges, the people had spoken on those charges. Of course, he explained saying that the scale of the “irregularities”, whether it concerned the allocation of 2G spectrum or allocations of coal lots, was highly exaggerated by the media and those with a vested interest. There is some validity to that assertion.
On the whole Dr. Singh cast himself as a leader for history to judge. (Don’t they all do that?) "I do not believe I am a weak prime minister. That is for historians to judge… Taking into account the circumstances and compulsions of coalition polity, I have done as best as I could. When history is written of this period, we will come out unscathed," he said.
The purpose of today’s post is not to assess Dr. Singh’s legacy, which I happen to think is better than what may seem like going by the irrational political discourse that overruns everything in India. India is not a country where the success or failure of governance and leadership can be judged using standard formulas. That goes for prime ministers of any and all parties. It is a punishingly thankless job that only the very ambitious, the very conceited and the very stoic can handle.